NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the US chiefs of staff, almost certainly cannot mean it when they say the war in Ukraine could last for years.
‘Be prepared for a long haul: this war may last for weeks, but also months and possibly even for years,’ Stoltenberg told a news conference at Nato’s Brussels headquarters on Thursday.
Are we yet again being misled by leaders who are taking a terrible gamble against Vladimir Putin? If not for the West, Zelensky would already have surrendered. Even with the West’s military aid, he cannot hold out much longer and can only lose even more by fighting on. It is highly unlikely to take Putin years or even months to reach his limited objectives. Whatever Stoltenberg’s reasons for predicting a long war, he must know these facts.
A long war would leave all Ukraine in ruins and the West with the inescapable moral duty to rebuild it. It would sap Russia economically because of sanctions and tie up military forces needed to maintain Moscow’s security sway in Georgia and Kazakhstan. Putin will not let that happen.
The rest of the world meanwhile would suffer from the continuing loss of essential Russian and Ukrainian exports including raw materials, energy and food. No one anywhere has been unaffected in some observable way by a war whose international consequences will inevitably worsen and will last into the future even if fighting stopped tomorrow.
However much the Biden administration would like to prolong fighting in hopes of bringing Putin down, too many other factors dictate that a diplomatic solution is essential sooner rather than later to limit the damage that has resulted from a badly-conceived policy of flouting Russia’s red lines in eastern Europe.
In fact, the longer the war lasts, the more likely Putin is to resort what has been called an ‘escalation to secure de-escalation’. That would be the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine with the threat of worse in store for the West itself if the message were not received.
It would be wrong to think that Putin would shrink from a nuclear conflict with the US if he thought there was no other way out. Both sides have wargamed this prospect for decades, and the Russians believe their superior anti-missile defences give them a better chance of survival than the United States.
Biden and his advisers, who boasted earlier that they ‘had Putin where they want him’ and that ‘the end game can only be Putin’s removal’ are never going to take that ultimate risk on behalf of Ukraine.
We do not know whether Nato and Russia are talking secretly through back channels to contain the conflict. It may seem perverse to mention restraint but neither the US nor the Russians have so far resorted to cyber warfare which would cause huge economic damage in America and immediately challenge public perception of the war.
Americans and Europeans are overwhelming pro-Ukraine but not to the extent of losing their electricity grids or satellite communications. Our digital economies would stop dead.
Nato has scrupulously avoided getting involved in the fighting and there seems no likelihood of that policy changing. It has not supplied Ukrainian president Zelensky with the offensive weapons he would need to have any chance of reversing the odds on the battlefield against a stronger foe.
Putin’s intentions have been misread. He has no interest in occupying a neighour the size of France whose remaining population will be embittered by Russia’s aggression for years to come. His generals have said their immediate target is the occupation of the Donbas which lies between eastern Ukraine and Russia. They probably want to take Odessa, the main Ukrainian seaport, or at least cut it off from the rest of the country, leaving Ukraine landlocked and economically crippled.
The Russians are steadily taking all their objectives in eastern Ukraine and along its coasts. Once these are secured, Putin will presumably be prepared to talk and Zelensky will have run out of options if the West still refuses to do more.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the US was ready to give Ukraine ten tank busters for every tank that the Russian army deployed on Ukrainian territory. Such weapons together with drones have been effective in slowing the Russian advance but not in stopping it.
While the media have been preoccupied with the stalled 40-mile Russian convoy towards Kiev at the start of the war and on the subsequent Russian withdrawal from around the capital, the Russians have been consolidating and extending their other fronts which matter much more. Kiev has only symbolic value when Zelensky can move his government to Lwow.
The assault on Kiev looks more and more to have been a diversion with the Russians willing to sacrifice men and armour in tying up Ukrainian manpower while the rest of their army went after its real targets in the less well defended east and south.
The media, reporting from only the Ukrainian side, have portrayed the Russian army as amateurish, reluctant to fight for Kiev and badly led but a closer look at the battlefield situation elsewhere suggests they have deluded themselves and us.
Ironically, after Zelensky stirred outrage in the West over alleged Russian atrocities against civilians in the Kiev region, the Russians are now accusing the Ukrainians of executing captured soldiers which would also be a war crime. These incidents may have a fleeting propaganda value but no more that. They do not affect the fundamentals of the war. Putin is ruthless? We always knew that.
What counts is that, as things stand, Zelensky is constantly losing territory vital to Ukraine’s future as a country, Putin has powerful reserves he has not yet put in play and he has not been deterred by the West’s limited counter-measures. Russia may be Upper Volta with rockets, as the old sneer goes, but Ukraine is Upper Volta without them.